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Our Last King
Cursed by ancestry,bedeviled by his posterity, beset by forces he could not grasp, George III is usually remembered as the ogre of Jefferson’s Declaration. An eminent English historian reassesses that strange and pathetic personality
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
The King did not, however, die. He then slowly recovered to the horrifying spectacle of his heir quarreling with his ministers about who should control the prerogatives of the Crown. He was never the same; his eccentricities were more pronounced than ever. He talked more, listened less, and grew frenzied if a difficult political problem, such as emancipation of Roman Catholics from their civil disabilities, was mentioned to him. He regarded these restrictions on the faith of the Stuarts as a sacred trust and thought the Almighty would destroy him, his progeny, and his country if he failed to maintain them. And, of course, he meddled less in affairs. He could not concentrate sufficiently on day-to-day business, and he was forced to give Pitt a far freer hand than he had ever allowed anyone in the past. The public knew this, and so the greatest obstacle to his popularity was removed. Also, it had found another scapegoat.
At the time of Wilkes and the war in America, George III was blamed for all the ills that beset his empire; now it was his son’s turn. The Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV, was a handsome, florid, reckless, extravagant, self-indulgent man of uncertain taste in women and architecture. Alternatively pampered and cursed, he had been kept like a child without a separate income or establishment and subject to the cheese-paring dreariness of the royal household until he was twenty-one. Warmhearted, uninhibited, and devoid of common sense, the Prince naturally erupted dramatically into social and political life the moment he found release. At once he consorted with the King’s enemies, particularly Charles James Fox, a man who was generous to a fault, utterly dissolute, profoundly witty, obsessed with gambling, soaked in alcohol, and indestructibly radical. The Prince’s and Fox’s friendship ripened in 1783 when Fox was doing his best to strip the King of his most cherished prerogative—the personal choice of his servants. This, of course, intensified the King’s grief and rage.
His agony was increased by the Prince’s sexual behavior. The King was a very prudish man and intensely moral. The Prince was seen in the arms of an actress—the beautiful Perdita Robinson. Worse horrors followed. The Prince fell overwhelmingly in love with a Roman Catholic widow—Mrs. Fitzherbert. He worshipped her and married her. Although the marriage might be valid in the eyes of God, it was an empty ceremony according to the law of the land, which Mrs. Fitzherbert well knew. No sooner accomplished, the act scared the Prince. He denied it to everyone including Fox but the rumor intensified and spread, and the King, to whom Roman Catholics were a frightening bogy, was driven nearly out of his few remaining wits.
The Prince was as much of a wanton with his money as with his love. He adored building and grew infatuated with interior decoration. At Brighton he began to create the fabulous Pavilion—a nightmare of a building that combined eighteenth-century elegance with oriental fantasy. His London home, Carlton House, swallowed tens of thousands of pounds with the ease of a vacuum cleaner. The King was an intensely frugal man; the Prince’s debts grew astronomic; his creditors became frantic, and the infuriated King was forced to pay them. The Prince consorted with the Whig radicals, fornicated with Catholics, and spent money like water. And George III’s other sons turned out no better than their brother—indeed most of them were worse, for America’s last princes were a fabulous brood.
All but one of this royal crew—Cambridge—were warmhearted, honest, generous to a fault. And there their virtues ended. York, a good soldier, connived at his mistress’—a demimondaine called Clarke—selling army commissions like a broker; his debts, considering his prospects, overtopped the Prince of Wales’s. Clarence lived in ostentatious sin with Mrs. Jordan, a second-rate actress, who had to make tours of provincial theaters to keep the home together for the ten little FitzClarences. Kent caused a mutiny through his sadistic brutality, lived for twenty-seven years with his French-Canadian mistress, repudiated her, married, begot Queen Victoria, and became a socialist to irritate the royal family, who would not pay his debts. Sussex was given to absurd marriages; Cambridge was merely bleak, mean to the point of mania, and mildly eccentric in behavior. Cumberland was the most unsavory of them all. The public believed that his valet had attempted to murder him because of indecent assault, and that he had a child by his sister. Neither was true.
Some of these antics George III never heard about, but his last years of sanity, when he lived in a strange twilight world between reality and fantasy, were rendered pitiful and tragic—at least in the public’s eyes—by the wanton behavior of his children. And undoubtedly they added an intolerable strain to a mind that had weakened under the burdens which had proved too great for it.
In 1811, America’s last king went irrevocably mad. For nine years he roamed his palace, a pathetic figure in his purple dressing gown, with wild white hair and beard, blind, deaf, a Lear-like figure playing to himself on his harpsichord and talking, talking, talking of men and women long since dead.
Yet the last twenty years had changed the nation’s view of its King—half sane or mad though he might be. The people realized that he had tried within the narrow limits of his capacity to discharge the duties and obligations of kingship; that his faults, which were grievous, sprang from the best of intentions. He had succeeded to wide dominions, which he held to be a sacred trust. In his simple-minded way he could not believe that any provocation could excuse the terrible treason of the Americans who tried to break up what God had so obviously joined together and put under his rule.